The Effects of Segregation on African American High School Seniors' Academic Achievement

By Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin; Heath, Damien | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Effects of Segregation on African American High School Seniors' Academic Achievement


Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin, Heath, Damien, The Journal of Negro Education


This study examines the relationship between segregated education and school outcomes for African American adolescents in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, school district (CMS), regarded as a model of successful desegregated public schooling. Using 1997 survey data, it investigates the effects of segregated elementary education and racially identifiable tracked secondary courses on the academic achievement of 640 African American high school seniors. Findings indicate that many CMS schools remain segregated at the building level; at the secondary level, all core academic classes were tracked and racially identifiable, with Black students disproportionately found in lower tracks. Both forms of segregated schooling had negative effects on academic outcomes. Importantly, desegregated learning environments benefited the academic performance of Black students who experienced them.

A key tenet of the American Dream is that all citizens are entitled to equality of educational opportunity. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, the desegregation of public schooling has remained an important component of federal and state education policies designed to expand educational opportunities for racial/ethnic minority youth. The educational rationale for school desegregation rests largely upon claims that it improves the access of minority students to the higher quality education generally available to White Americans and therefore improves both minority students' educational outcomes and life chances. Evidence clearly demonstrates that desegregation improves the long-term life chances of minority students. At the same time, the evidence in support of the claim that desegregation improves short-term educational outcomes has been equivocal. This article investigates possible reasons for the equivocal findings regarding the short-term outcomes of desegregation for African American high school students in a district widely considered to be one of the nation's most successfully desegregated school systems.

Although the implementation of desegregation policies has been uneven and unstable across the nation's 16,000 school districts during the past 40 years, one stable and virtually universal feature of U.S. public schools is their organization of learning and instruction by academic tracks in secondary schools and ability groups in the early grades. In theory, tracking is designed to enhance teaching and learning through targeting instruction and course content to the student's ability and prior knowledge. However, there is little consistent evidence that, as implemented, tracking is the best form of classroom organization for maximizing opportunities to learn for most students. To the contrary, ample evidence suggests that tracking hinders mid- and low-ability students' opportunities to learn. Moreover, track placements are strongly correlated with students` race/ethnicity and social class, and within desegregated schools tracking often resegregates students by these attributes. Tracking, then, has the potential to undermine the potential short-term benefits of school-level desegregation for low-income and minority students.

The complicated relationships among equality of educational opportunity, desegregation, and tracking lie at the heart of this study of the effects of school desegregation and tracking on the school outcomes of African American high school seniors in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Schools (CMS). The CMS district is an important site for investigating these questions because it has been under a court mandate to desegregate since the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. Many observers consider CMS to be one of the nation's most successfully desegregated public school systems (Douglas, 1995). Therefore, an empirical examination of the relationship of school segregation and/or desegregation to the academic achievement of Blacks is an especially important endeavor with possible implications far beyond the district's own boundaries. …

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